Pierce Green was a freshman in high school who had never slept over at a friend’s house. Pierce was bright and funny and he lit up the room. Also, he was on the autism spectrum and struggled to know how to interact with other people. When we prepared for our Presbytery youth retreat, we made a social story and a visual schedule; we had the coolest adult chaperone just for Pierce. We also had conversations with all the kids – Pierce, the kids at our church and the kids at other churches – and their leaders. We talked about autism, about being patient with each other, about asking for help and about being okay with being vulnerable.
At his first overnight, we managed to not only keep everyone safe, but we also thrived. Kids learned to listen, to ask each other if they had what they needed, to hold good boundaries and to be vulnerable. By the end of the weekend, Pierce went on his first hike, made a beaded bracelet and learned that if you want to be friends with someone, you have to talk to them about what they are interested in. That weekend, Pierce made friends.
That is disability inclusion in the church.
According to a 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of U.S. adults have a disability, and people with disabilities participate in faith communities at a 14% lower rate than expected. The article “Congregational Participation and Supports for Children and Adults with Disabilities: Parent Perceptions” published in the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities journal, documents that this participation gap increases with more severe disabilities. This means that people with disabilities are the largest underserved minority group in our churches.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Christian Formation hopes to make disability inclusion easier for all churches; that’s why we have created a disability inclusion tool kit. We hope to let every church know that you do not need to be exceptional; you don’t need a big budget or limitless volunteers. You just need to listen to people with disabilities.
Our toolkit provides some tools to get you started as you think about physical access, simple changes to signage and language in worship and guides for Christian formation, sermon preparation, mission and fellowship. We even have a resource map with ways to connect with thousands of resources through Presbyterians for Disability Concerns, our disability consultants and resources outside of the denomination.
Our toolkit doesn’t promise a quick fix, but we know that churches are good at slow change: at listening to one another, volunteering to be that special chaperone, cutting out a visual schedule, talking to our kids about being vulnerable and helping to patiently care for one another as we learn together how to build lasting relationships that make life by valuing people of all abilities. We hope that this toolkit can help you and your church to build relationships around faith inclusion.